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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the German weekly Die Zeit

When on 16 November Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appeared for an interview in his office in the Buda Castle Quarter, he placed on the table a letter bearing an official seal. The addressee of the letter was the leader of the country currently holding the presidency of the European Council: “Her Excellency Angela Merkel”. In two brief sentences the letter states that the Hungarian government will not accept the future EU budget in the form given to it by the European Parliament after the relevant European Council meeting. With this the Prime Minister of Hungary is steering the European Union into another major crisis.

Giovanni di Lorenzo: Have you just sent this?

Yes, two hours ago.

Did you give the Chancellor prior warning?

A few days ago there was a video conference on this topic. I’d rather not tell you what Angela Merkel said, as that would be unfair. But I can tell you what I told her: “What you’re asking me to do, Angela, is to commit suicide.”

With this letter, with this threat, you’ve reached the highest level of escalation. Now two trains are speeding towards each other on the same track. Can they be stopped?

The trains aren’t speeding towards each other. Our train is at a standstill, as we’re defending the status quo. And so far you haven’t been able to convince us that things need to be changed. So as Hungarians see it, we’re at a standstill, and the German train is speeding towards us, trying to force us off the track.

Why do you talk about the “German train”? Angela Merkel has been president of the Council for six months starting in July, but this is the train of almost all the European states.

Yes, but Germany holds the presidency. [Laughs] This is what happens when you’re president; it’s an extremely thankless job.

The positions are as follows. On the one hand, the majority of European states want to introduce a so-called “rule of law mechanism”. They want to use this to ensure sanctions – in the form of the partial withholding of funding from Brussels – is there are violations of the EU’s common founding values. On the other hand, Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, says that if there’s a rule of law mechanism, Hungary won’t approve the EU’s seven-year budget, let alone the coronavirus rescue package. With this you’ve dropped a political atom bomb.

If the Germans do something like this, it’s an atom bomb; if we do it, it’s just a hand grenade. What, after all, are we talking about? It’s only a question of political will for us to decide to give the necessary funds to countries such as Italy or Spain, where national debt is more than 100 per cent of the gross domestic product. In Hungary, incidentally, the level is well under 100 per cent. Let’s help those in difficulty as soon as we can. We can continue the debate on the rule of law independently of this; it doesn’t have to happen right now.

But the rule of law mechanism has nothing to do with your approval of the budget. That debate has been ongoing for years. Only this July, all 27 Member States – including Hungary – agreed on this.

The decision in July was about creating rules for the protection of the EU’s financial interests. Full stop. The issue of a rule of law mechanism must be clarified at the highest level, in the Council; and that’s where we should urgently discuss this question. For me these are two separate issues which are not connected in any way. Subsequently, however, the European Parliament tried to somehow link them together, and threatened to block the budget and the coronavirus funding if there’s no agreement on a new rule of law mechanism. The latter is as yet undefined, and lacks any objective, rationally defined provisions that are applicable to everyone and can be subjected to subsequent analysis. It is something about which the European Council can adopt a decision at a later date. As we see it, the German presidency has decided to depart from the European Council’s July decision in order to comply with the later wishes of the European Parliament.

I expect you’re not surprised that in Germany this is seen differently.

Yes, we differ over interpretation. It’s possible to create a new rule of law mechanism, but in that case we’d need to add a supplement to the Treaties. What’s going on now is what we call the piecemeal changing and renegotiation of the Treaties – a process in which the interested parties are not consulted. This is squalid, and runs counter to the concept of the rule of law. But if this is what the Germans want, this is what will happen. My little hand grenade isn’t enough, but the Germans are the ones who could separate crisis management from the debate about the rule of law.

You’re familiar with the situation. On what points could a compromise be reached? Or doesn’t such a thing exist?

There is a solution.

What’s the difference between a solution and a compromise?

If a situation is complex, one must go back to the underlying intentions. We must make clear who wants what. The countries in need want money quickly; let’s give it to them. Other countries want new rules relating to the rule of law; fine, let’s talk about it. We must do the first thing immediately, but the second is less urgent. The rule of law is fine, thank you very much – new regulations can wait for a few more months.

Do you really consider it probable that there will be such a solution?

The state must maintain the status quo, in other words the applicable laws. I’m only stressing the status quo due to the question of moral responsibility: the burden of moral responsibility is borne by those who want to change something, not by those who are defending the status quo, like we are.

Are you saying that moral responsibility must be borne by those who insist that in every country human rights should have the same meaning, that the concept of freedom should have the same meaning, and that we should all uphold the same principle of the separation of powers and the same freedom of press and academia?

All 27 Member States are in agreement on those points. The burden of responsibility falls on those who in the present circumstances want to make retroactive legal changes and who would link this retroactive change with the issue of the budget and coronavirus funding. Europe already has rules regarding the rule of law which have worked well for the past twenty years. This is why I believe that in fact there’s no need to change anything at all. 

In response, the other side would say that in the past the rule of law was not under attack in the same way as it is today in Hungary and Poland.

Article 7 of the Treaty already contains a provision. [This lays down that a Member State can be denied its voting right if it violates the EU’s founding values. In 2018 a procedure under Article 7 was launched against Hungary, but it has not been concluded – the Editor.] We would like the procedure launched against us to be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible, and we’re asking the Council to discuss this. At a meeting of the Council I would be able to convince everyone that in Hungary the rule of law is being upheld; but first they must give me the opportunity to do so. Instead of this, however, they’re working on creating a new legal instrument. Why?

Because they think that an Article 7 procedure is impracticable, and not a single country has ever been deprived of its voting right. And because the financial sanctions under the planned rule of law mechanism could punish the countries concerned more effectively. What happens if your proposed solution falls on deaf ears?

The problem must be solved by Germany. This sometimes seems like a kind of “mission impossible”, but the Germans hold the presidency, and so it’s their responsibility.

Time and again you say that the Germans are responsible. The tone adopted in relation to Hungary and Poland – for instance, in the Commission under Ursula von der Leyen – has become much more tolerant.

Undoubtedly. But in the German position I’m surprised by what I sense as a kind of intellectual indifference. It’s common knowledge that the Germans are strong, smart and tactically aware. But we here in Hungary believe that the Germans must also sense something which points beyond current everyday developments.

What do you mean?

In European politics, decision-making guided by popularity ratings and opinion poll results has become the norm.

Except in Hungary. 

This is an occupational hazard. [Laughs] Despite this, we know that, in addition to daily popularity ratings, there’s also a historical dimension: what impact will what we’re doing now have one, two or five years from now? The Germans used to have a sense of this historical dimension, but now I think they’ve lost it. They want to force on us a regulation concerning the rule of law which has no objective criteria, but only subjective criteria. This is why I keep saying that if we accept this regulation, we’ll be turning the European Union into the Soviet Union. The Germans ought to understand this, but they’re not interested. A state in which the rule of law is upheld is different from one in which it isn’t upheld in the sense that objective, rationally defined criteria serve as yardsticks, and judgments can only be passed on the basis of evidence. In a historic sense, thirty-one years ago Hungarians did an enormous amount to ensure that the principles of the rule of law would be upheld to the east of the former Iron Curtain as well as to the west of it – but on the basis of objective criteria.

This is a matter of debate, and you know that.

Yes, but in a debate we must be able to state our views. In the Hungarian culture of debate, anything expressed with excessive courtesy but lack of clarity is seen as being somewhat disrespectful, while anything that’s stated clearly and firmly is seen as showing respect.

But aren’t Hungarians at a disadvantage if this develops into a confrontation?

I know that in Germany it’s a widespread belief that the Germans give the Hungarians money – and that the Hungarians receive money from the EU, on which they’re therefore dependent.

Can I clarify something? In the past year alone, the amount Hungary has received from the EU is 5.1 billion euros more than the amount it paid into the EU.

This is only one side of the coin. According to our statistics that figure is 4.1 billion. However, every year businesses from EU Member States take 6 billion euros out of the country in the form of dividends and profits. The playing field isn’t level, because we’ve come from a background of communism and dictatorship, and countries such as Germany come from a background of capitalism and freedom. We don’t receive money from the EU: we see this as compensation for the profits generated in our country by other Member States. This is why we’re unmoved by financial blackmail.

Are you saying that economically Hungary doesn’t need the EU?

No, I’m saying that neither the Germans, nor those in Brussels can look upon the EU funds forwarded to Hungary as some kind of a gift. This is partial compensation for the advantage others have over us in an unfair competition.

At the beginning of the year you attended a conference in Italy at which the elite of the European Right was present, including [Marine] Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal from France, Giorgia Meloni from Italy and Beatrix von Storch from Germany’s AfD. You always claim to be a conservative. Why do you appear in the company of such people?

[Sighs deeply] There are all sorts of people, this is the way of the world. We’re all different. Meloni is a good politician, and it’s easy to find common ground with her on important issues.

With the leader of a post-fascist party? 

My view is somewhat more nuanced, but I accept the organisers’ decision on whom they invite.

At that conference you announced nothing less than a counter-revolution.

Within the EU there’s a battle between two positions. One position asserts that the basic elements of the EU are its institutions. The other position – that I also represent – sees the basic elements of the EU as the Member States. I believe that the only possible starting point is the interests of Member States and our individual cultural freedom of action – the aggregate of which forms the European interest. Europe must be built from below, by its peoples with their wonderfully diverse cultural and historical traditions. The EU’s strength lies in its diversity. In fact Udo Lindenberg, who gave a concert in Budapest in 1988, was an advocate for a diverse Federal Republic of Germany. We’re all different.

With all due respect to Udo Lindenberg, aren’t some Eastern European countries fundamentally misunderstanding the situation? For a long time the EU has not only been just an economic community, but also an institutional community in which nation states have transferred some of their sovereignty. And then you come along, saying, “I don’t want to transfer any of my sovereignty”. How is this compatible?

I’m defending the status quo. And we’ve already handed over a part of our sovereignty. Your criticism suggests that I want to back out of what we already have. I don’t want to back out of it.

In some parts of the EU, moving away from the idea of nation states is seen as progress.

Above all, the EU’s goal is to guarantee the future of its Member States and the survival of nations in terms of security, thriving economies and policy formation.

Because without the EU they wouldn’t be economically viable?

Security, the economy and the international representation of common political interests aren’t effective without the EU, and this is why it was established. But we Hungarians don’t want to change the other EU countries, because European values lie in diversity and in respecting differences. This is our strength. It is cultural diversity that embodies Europe’s attractiveness.

You, on the other hand, want to do whatever you like in your country, without any kind of interference. You give the impression of being so critical of Europe that one wonders why Hungary is still in the EU. Have you ever considered quitting it?

No, never. Thirty years ago we had dictatorship here, and Hungary was within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. My brothers in arms and I sacrificed years of our lives to change this. We overthrew the communists. Instead of the “rule of man” that was communism, we created the rule of law. We are the street fighters and revolutionaries for the rule of law. We imagined that after overthrowing the communists we would enter into alliance with the Western countries of the European Union. This is not a political programme; it is our lives. How could I quit my own life?

When you were a rebel, when you rebelled against Soviet rule, was your guiding vision a Western-style liberal democracy?

[Sighs] Yes, that’s what it was called back then.

Is that what you wanted, too?

aturally. In Western European politics, my political mentor was Otto Graf Lambsdorff. And later I became a colleague and friend of Helmut Kohl. It was from them that I learnt about democracy, political competition and the market economy.

And when did you experience great disappointment?

I wouldn’t call it disappointment. For Kohl and Lambsdorff there was a balance between national sovereignty, one’s own culture, and a “United States of Europe”. This was not static, but dynamic. In those days we thought that Western Europe was good, and it didn’t even cross our minds that it could be ruined. Now, however, we have learnt that Europe can be both good and bad: it can be a social market economy with a sense of ecological responsibility, which is what we Hungarians prefer; or it can be brazen, greedy casino capitalism. When did the battle within the EU become so fierce? This, in fact, is the key question.

And what’s the answer?

2015.

Refugee policy.

Migration. Suddenly we saw that someone wanted to decide for us who is allowed to be in Hungary – and that someone was not us. In fact matters reached the point at which it was actually stated that those letting in migrants are countries under the rule of law, while those not letting them in aren’t countries under the rule of law. This is where we stand today. In 2015 they said that those who refuse to let in migrants shouldn’t be given any money. Is this the ideal of equality?

You always refer to refugees as occupiers. Are you really concerned that they will flood Hungary, a country of barely ten million?

For five hundred years the building in which you are now sitting was a monastery. Then for 130 years it was a mosque. This is where I now sit. It’s difficult for me to see the world in a different light. Perhaps in the Mediterranean region Arab, Muslim and Christian worlds can happily coexist. But we Hungarians belong to the northern edge of that region, and this is why history is so important to us. To our minds, what’s happening in Western Europe today is a repeat of something which was attempted unsuccessfully in the past: Muslims occupying Vienna, or advancing even further west.

But today there’s no imperialist Arab ruler sending his subjects westwards. Do you really think that this is a Muslim occupation in the true sense of that phrase?

That’s right. I’m talking about the philosophy of history which forms part of the Hungarian people’s self-identification. For us Hungarians a multicultural society is surrender. By contrast, defending Judeo-Christian culture is survival.

May I ask you where you see signs of this surrender in multicultural Germany? Over the course of fifty years Germany has taken in so many migrants that today one quarter of the population is from a migrant background. These people are there, and the country has not surrendered in any way: it is a thriving, liberal, democratic, peace-loving country. Although there is an AfD, it’s much smaller than most right-wing parties in the West.

The German people will know what they want to do with their own lives. I’m not asking you to agree with me on this view of history. Neither am I asking you to adopt my position, which sees multiculturalism as dangerous. I only ask you to accept that I have the right to view the future of my own country in the way that I do.

I can understand that your history has made you mistrustful. But if it’s an eternal truth that Muslims are dangerous, what distinguishes this attitude from racism?

Hungary has excellent relations with Muslim countries. Hungary provides the greatest assistance to Muslim states living in difficult circumstances. There isn’t a grain of anti-Muslim sentiment in us. We simply have a vision of our own lives.

But you say that if too many of them come you will be surrendering your Christian Hungarian identity.

Yes, but why do they have to come here? They have their own countries.

For the same reason, for instance, that millions of Hungarians left your country when it was under communism. They envisaged a better life somewhere else, with greater freedom, security and prosperity.

That’s no problem. Fleeing communism was subject to its own rules. But today if someone – like you – is a citizen of an EU Member State, they can go wherever they like, including our country. That’s not a problem. But who we let in from outside the EU is another matter. We have excellent relations with the Chinese, but we wouldn’t like it if five million Chinese people suddenly arrived here. My position is that we must take aid to North Africa, rather than bringing their problems here.

You’ve spoken about Erdoğan and Turkey, on several occasions you’ve praised the achievements of the Chinese and Xi Jinping, and you’ve expressed admiration of Putin’s successes in Russia. Do you look upon these three rulers as exemplars?

We can’t look upon anyone as an exemplar, because the Chinese system requires Chinese people, the Turkish system requires Turks, and the Russian system requires Russians. But we’re Hungary.

But these are all illiberal states, to use one of your famous terms.

When I talk about Hungary, I talk about an illiberal democracy, not an illiberal state.

Don’t you consider Hungary [sic], Turkey and Russia to be democracies?

The foundation of every societal system is culture. There is democracy in Hungary not because it’s a good thing, but because Hungarians like democracy and feel comfortable with it. And when we look at those whom Hungarians most resemble, they’re undoubtedly other Christian states like Germany, Poland and Austria. I think that Christians are of necessity born to be democrats, because Christianity teaches us that every person is created in God’s own image. This is why no matter whether one is rich or poor, in an election every person has one vote. The genius has one vote and the simpleton has one.

Does this also mean that there are peoples that are not born to be like this?

I’d say that other peoples must derive their democratic political systems from other origins. They, too, must find a way to link their own cultures to democracy. Otherwise we simply see a crude kind of US export of democracy.

At the beginning of the year you visited Berlin, where at a DPA event you said that Angela Merkel has created a political vacuum with her refugee policy, thereby enabling the rise of a right-wing populist party in Germany. If this is true, how can you – who closed your borders – explain the fact that you have a radical right-wing party which is much more radical and much stronger than the AfD?

In the interim Jobbik has become insignificant. In desperation it’s forged an alliance with the Left. Nowadays it’s pro-migration, and it even promotes gender ideology. If there’s a firm, democratic, Christian people’s party that defends national values and preserves its character, then there’s no room for the radical Right. This is my view, and it was also said by Strauss, and later by Stoiber. And I think that they’re right.

Do you follow the CSU’s tradition?

Our Christian, national government in Hungary shares more or less the same philosophical views as those of the CDU under Helmut Kohl’s leadership or the CSU under Edmund Stoiber. But since then Germany has changed these dramatically, with the result that German conservatives must now fight major battles in order to stay in power. In Germany there is a grand coalition. Angela Merkel must fight extremely hard to avoid the emergence of a left-wing majority. The CDU has effectively no programme: its only goal is to keep the Left in check. Its strategy is as follows: it says, “Very well, if society develops as it is doing and we don’t want to lose out majority, we must enter into a compromise with the Left and adopt elements of their agenda.” The consequences are obvious: the conservatives are moving ever closer to the left-wing mainstream, and are unable to preserve their own characteristic features.

And the second option?

The second option is my strategy: one must say no. Perhaps this is the spirit of the age, but we believe that we must defend certain conservative values. And this is what I’m doing. We must remind people of the need for consistency.

You are in your fourth term as prime minister, and you have a two-thirds majority. In other democracies this is an unimaginably large majority. From this position of strength and power, why do you always have to torment those who are weaker? Just to mention a few topical examples: you changed the leadership of Budapest’s independent University of Theatre and Film Arts; you’ve withdrawn the licence of the government-critical radio station Klubrádió; you won’t allow homosexual couples to adopt children. And you’ve also carried out a reform of school textbooks, which strengthens the notion of Hungarian nationalism. In contrast with this, one feature of democracy is that the majority shows consideration towards the minority.

That’s called tolerance. We must accept that there are different opinions, and each has its own legitimacy. This is also not a matter for debate. I’m not the leader of the nation, I’m leading the Government.

Although you’re this strong, you’re leaving ever less room for government-critical, opposition views.

There are no restrictions on opposition platforms; they’re completely free. I don’t have the power to decide who is given a radio frequency and who isn’t. If Parliament were to authorise me to make that decision, then I could decide, but it doesn’t have the slightest intention of doing so. That is the responsibility of the telecommunications authority…

Which is full of people from your party.

That’s not true. Members of the Media Authority are elected by Parliament, and so far no one has questioned the quality of their decisions.

But you have a two-thirds majority, and this is reflected in the composition of the Authority.

Yes, but so far no one has questioned their decisions. And the fact that there’s democracy in Hungary is also proved by the fact that opposition broadcasters have continued to operate in Hungary over the past ten years. If I’m not mistaken, the frequency licence of this radio station has expired, and there will be a new call for applications. No doubt the station will submit another application, and the Media Council will decide whom to award the frequency to. I can’t interfere in this, and I don’t want to. But I can tell you why Western criticism regarding media freedom in Hungary doesn’t have any effect. It’s because everyone laughs at these accusations – in fact they scream with laughter. Everyone knows that in Hungary the media is very critical of me and the Government.

No one outside Hungary has come to that conclusion. Public service television is entirely on your side.

Anyone who speaks Hungarian knows that I’m right. Let me give you an example. If you turn on the television in the evening, the channel with the largest audience, which is German-owned, incidentally…

I’m sure you’re going to say RTL.

is with the Opposition, 100 per cent!

They screen a very large number of entertainment shows, and very few news shows.

That’s their business. But their news has some of the highest viewing figures. And the majority of the country’s most popular online news portals are anti-government.

One of them left that category: Origo. And there’s Index, which is independent and critical, but struggling with serious difficulties.

Yes, but it’s operating. And the most widely read political weeklies – HVG, Magyar Narancs or the big online portal 24.hu – are all firmly in the opposition camp. Of course, index.hu is still operating.

But not very well, because, for example, it’s receiving hardly any advertising revenue, as large Hungarian companies – which also have state contracts – dare not advertise there.

The most widely read daily, Népszava, is on the left; yet it receives state orders on a continuous basis. RTL is the same. But if you have time this afternoon, come into Parliament for question time. You’ll see that what they say there would be unthinkable in the German parliament. You’d be surprised at it.

At all events, I’ve heard that there’s also talk there of corruption. And about how your own family…

There’s everything: dictatorship, corruption, everything you can imagine. Everyone can say whatever they like, and the Prime Minister must listen and stand his ground. I know the German parliamentary rules, and they create a paradise for the head of government.

You mean that anyone who fails to observe the rules is thrown out…

Yes. Verbal brawling is probably not typical in the German parliament.

Is it over here?

In Hungary it is, yes.

But it’s easy to say these things when one has a two-thirds majority. Franz Josef Strauss said, “We can create that small amount of opposition among ourselves.”

In Germany political debates are not as fierce as they are here. From our point of view, German political debates are more like well-behaved afternoon tea parties. Over here people come armed with knives.

In addition to your fear of Muslim populations, you have another obsession: George Soros. You say that there’s hardly any other country that’s as accepting of Jewish people as Hungary is, and that no one needs to fear being harassed, attacked or shot outside a synagogue or a Jewish school. In that case, why did you commission an election poster two years ago in which Juncker and Soros were depicted as manipulators who want to harm the Hungarian people? The posters used every anti-Semitic cliche there is.

Yes, but only anti-Semites are bothered by being accused of anti-Semitism. I accept that I criticise everyone for their political opinions – including people who are Jewish. Who cares if some people say that we’re anti-Semitic? We aren’t. We don’t care if George Soros is Jewish or not. George Soros wants something that is bad for Hungary. He was the first person to state that countries which don’t let in migrants must be punished, and that EU funds should be taken away from them. This dispute with George Soros is purely political. 

On the other hand, Jewish institutions – including in Hungary – found your poster disturbing.

As you can see, none of the countless Jewish institutions and synagogues in Budapest need to be protected by police. Jewish culture and its inviolable status form part of our Hungarian culture, and we have the toughest laws against anti-Semitism in Europe. The Jewish community in Budapest is authentic, having survived the Second World War. In their personal lives its members carry all that pain and tragedy. This community is under the protection of the Hungarian government, which I personally guarantee.

Would you produce another poster like that one?

Of course! And there will be more like that. George Soros is an opponent of Hungary.

And also a big supporter of Viktor Orbán.

[Orbán laughs]

At the beginning of your career you received a scholarship. You worked for the Soros Foundation, and Soros helped your party.

Soros deserves great credit for his role in overthrowing communism in Hungary. In the second half of the 1980s he supported opposition groups who were anti-communist. There were always differences of opinion in terms of politics, but here too there was a moment when the nature of things changed. That moment was in 2015. Again it was purely about migration. He wanted to tell us what we should do.

You’ve governed the country for a combined total of more than fifteen years, [sic] making you one of the most senior European politicians – alongside Angela Merkel. Yet you don’t give the impression of being tired. For Angela Merkel this period is coming to an end. When Merkel steps down do you think it will be easier for you or harder?

I gave Angela Merkel some unsolicited advice. I said to her: “Stay on, because if you don’t, there will be serious problems in Europe.” But I couldn’t convince her. She was determined to leave office.

What are your plans? Do you want to continue to rule this country?

As long as people vote for me as a Member of Parliament, I will be a Member of Parliament. I’ve been in opposition for sixteen years, and by the end of this cycle I’ll have been in government for sixteen years. That’s a draw, but I want to win this match. So I’ll stand for re-election. And when I’m eighty, if people still think I’m fit to be a Member of Parliament, I’ll slowly wobble my way into Parliament every day and take part in political debates.

So will the European Union continue to enjoy your activities even after the German presidency?

If I have anything to do with it, yes, definitely.